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The Elephant in the Room for Refugee Initiatives: ‘Are We Relevant?’

Fanis Kollias questions the sustainability of recent civil society initiatives to help refugees. Founder of a magazine run by migrant and local journalists in Greece, he says some soul-searching is needed for small-scale initiatives like his, and outlines a way forward.

Written by Fanis Kollias Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A Syrian man holds his eight-month-old daughter at Ritsona refugee camp north of Athens on Oct. 19, 2016.AP/Petros Giannakouris

There has been a significant rise in new initiatives addressing the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean region in the past year and a half, including both structured and more informal organizations and activities.

The many different initiatives that have sprung up within a short time raise an important concern: Are they sustainable solutions or simply “fireworks” that are attractive and intense for a short duration, but quickly fizzle out, leaving behind ashes and debris?

I founded Solomon magazine, a digital publication based in Greece that is run by a team of 24 people from diverse backgrounds, with 18 languages spoken among them. The magazine is both an integration initiative reclaiming refugees’ and asylum seekers’ skills and talents, and a way for host communities to understand issues from the perspective of refugees.

I recently participated in a panel examining the role of more improvised or atypical initiatives that have emerged during the refugee crisis, which was organized by the Onassis Cultural Centre. A recurring theme during the discussion was: “How do we know that in five years’ time we won’t be here again, talking about these same issues?”

This is a soul-searching question for those of us who started and manage small-scale initiatives, and an important moment for introspection and improvement.

What is the problem that we think we are solving? Is there actually a problem and if so, whose problem is it? Have we actually asked the people facing the problem what their needs are before handing out solutions?

There are some fundamental mistakes we must avoid to effectively provide a solution to a specific problem.

First, there is often the tendency to carry out projects to aid a certain group of people, without first asking them what their needs are.

Second, the philosophy behind most social integration programs seems to be, “I’m carrying out this project for refugees.” With this philosophy, you’ve failed before you’ve begun. Integration is a mutual process with benefits for both sides – host communities and refugees.

Third, we often provide “fireworks” – in the form of impressive events or exhibits – until the budget has been used up and we are unable to carry out programs until new funding becomes available. It is useless to start a program without a long-term commitment to creating lasting impact, regardless of the scale.

Finally, when obtaining funding becomes a driving motivation and the mission is simply being involved in a “trendy” cause that is attractive to funders, this raises a moral predicament.

The most important question we must ask ourselves is also the most difficult one: Do we really want to solve a problem or have we realized we’ll only get funding if we find a problem to solve?

Failing to be honest about this can be harmful. If a project launches, but six months later is not able to renew funding, will we then simply abandon the refugees who were receiving services such as education, psychosocial support, microfinance and legal counseling?

For the sake of consistency, all initiatives must have a financial plan so that they are able to sustain themselves, remain independent of the dispositions of funders and prioritize serving people in need.

Ultimately, the question of how we avoid being back at square one in five years’ time depends on how much we collaborate with the people at the heart of the crisis.

For example, as someone who is not a refugee, I will only ever have an approximate idea of the needs of displaced communities, no matter how long I research the issue, how many diplomas I earn on the topic or how much I work in the field of migration.

The inspiration for my magazine’s name came from Jose Saramago’s book “The Elephant’s Journey,” in which an elephant named Solomon journeys from India to Portugal and then to Vienna. As he travels these long distances, people perceive him differently in different places.

Similarly, refugees today are seen differently in Greece, Germany and Lebanon. Understanding this is impossible when people affected by displacement are not involved in discussions. There are so many different situations, needs and problems that refugees face – specific to their locations, origin, gender or religion – that only they themselves can ascertain the full picture.

It is also important to better harness the skills of people who came from Middle Eastern countries and have been living in Greece for years. Many of them were employed as language interpreters for larger NGOs, especially during 2015 when the refugee flows were at their peak.

Now that arrivals in Greece have decreased and social and economic integration have replaced emergency aid as the main preoccupations of the aid sector, these people can teach us a great deal about the needs and problems of refugees – and ultimately solutions for developing a durable system of integration.

A large part of the failure of the humanitarian sector is the lack of long-term vision and overlooking the skills and talents of those who have arrived. It is not enough to give people symbolic voices at podiums during conferences.

If we truly work on these problems together maybe in five years’ time we’ll have new things to reflect upon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

Look out for reports from Solomon magazine on Refugees Deeply in the coming months.

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